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Shmuel Palache: The Pirate Rabbi

The Moroccan Ambassador

In the last article, we discussed Sinan “the Great Jew,” who was second in command of the Ottoman navy, and who terrorized the Spanish with his piratical activities.  In this article we will discuss a fascinating figure, a businessman who was also an ambassador of sorts, as well as a double agent and privateer.  His skills in several languages served him well, as he traveled extensively both on land and on the high seas.  He was also an observant Jew.  Meet Shmuel Palache, the entrepreneur/pirate/rabbi.

Before we tell his story the following point must be made: Given his colorful life, some have been led to embellish outlandish legends about him, elevating him to the status of a superhero.  Indeed, as we will note later, several contemporary historians have recorded these legends as fact, further complicating any understanding of this unique figure.


Samuel Pallache

Rembrandt van Rijn and Workshop (Probably Govaert Flinck) (Dutch, 1606 – 1669 ), Man in Oriental Costume, c. 1635, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection

Shmuel Palache was born in Fez, Morocco in the year 1550, where the family emigrated after his grandparents were expelled from Spain in 1492.  The Palache family was descended from a long line of Rabbanim, going all the way back to R’ Moshe Ben Chanoch, one of the famous “Arba Shvuyim (Four Captives).”1Jewish Encyclopedia.   Shmuel’s father was R’ Yitzchak, Rav of Fez, who is mentioned in the takkanot of the kehillah in 1588.2A Man of Three Worlds: Samuel Pallache, a Morrocan Jew in Catholic and Protestant Europe, by Mercedes Garcia- Arenel and Gerad Weigers, p. 12. Shmuel also had a brother, Yoseph, who was an accomplice in many of Shmuel’s exploits, as well as a sister who eventually married Rav Yehudah Uziel, one of the leading rabbis of the Neve Shalom kehillah in Amsterdam.3A Man of Three Worlds: Samuel Pallache, a Morrocan Jew in Catholic and Protestant Europe, by Mercedes Garcia- Arenel and Gerad Weigers, p. 12. 

Growing up in the Mellah (the Morrocan version of the ghetto) of Fez, Shmuel attended Cheder with his brother and studied chumash and gemara.  Their father was also the melamed, who must have had a strong desire to pass on the rabbinic tradition which had been in the family for centuries.  From time to time, the boys were visited by an uncle who was a maggid of sorts, and he sparked their imagination with tales of his travels.4Jewish Pirates of the Carribean, p. 77. It was these visits that gave young Shmuel a desire to see the world.

What was life like growing up in the mellah of Fez? We have a very interesting description of the community from a visiting Spanish traveler:5A Man of Three Worlds, 24.

[In the third district of new Fez], is now to be found the Jewish quarter, which was previously located in Old Fez; and because whenever a king died, the Moors ran to loot the houses of the Jews, King Bussaid moved them on condition that they pay him a double tribute.  In this quarter there is a great square with many shops and synagogues, and very well built houses. 

The Jews live there as if in a separate town, and there are 10,000 householders, and four or five dwellers in each house… Among them, there are some who are rich, and have a shaykh (sheikh), who as a sort of governor, administers justice for them and delivers their tribute to the King… The Jews in Africa are greatly despised by the Moors, who do not allow them to wear shoes…If any of them become wealthy and the king manages to find out about it, he takes their wealth away and often has them killed for it.  But they are so hardworking and know so much about business, that they commonly administer the estate of the king… because Moorish gentlemen as I have said do not hold the custom of trading in much esteem, nor do they understand so well as the Jews the little details and subtleties, and each one endeavours to have a Jew manage his estate and in this way the Jews enrich themselves greatly.

We see from this report that Fez had a massive Jewish presence in the sixteenth century, and while they were hated by the local population, they were desperately needed for their business skills by the elite of Fez.

Shmuel’s Adventures in Spain

Philip III of Spain

Artist: Andrés López Polanco Date: circa 1617                  Collection: Skokloster Castle Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Shmuel eventually married Reina Palache, who bore two sons, Yitzchak and Yaakov.  By this time, Shmuel and his brother had moved to Tetuan, a pirate port opposite the strait of Gibraltar.  There they engaged in piracy, raiding Spanish ships and plundering them.6Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean p. 78. They would then sell their merchandise for profit.  News of the brothers’ activities reached the sultan of Morocco Muley Zidan (or Sidan as he was called by some), and he sent them on a mission to sail to Spain, where they would purchase jewels with beeswax (used in the production of seals).

And so in 1602, at the age of fifty-two, Shmuel set sail with Yoseph for Madrid, to meet with Philip III of Spain.  Although Jews were forbidden from settling in Spain, certain Jews were given entry permits into Spain for business purposes.  They were called “Juderio de Permisso” or permitted Jews.  Arriving in Spain in 1603, the brothers met with the king, after which they attempted to travel further to Lisbon.  They were stopped by one of the King’s ministers, who warned Philip that the brothers would probably influence the conversos to return to Judaism, and the Palache brothers were denied passage.7This minister warned “If those who come from the Sharrif and must go there [Lisbon] to buy stones are Jews, they will cause much among those of their nation, as experience has taught us.” A Man of Three Worlds, 5. This indicates that there were incidents where traveling Jews did manage to connect with the anusim, and were mechazek them.

Two years later the brothers were back in Spain, where Shmuel offered his services to the king as a double agent.  Although officially working for the sultan of Morocco, there was now a civil war raging between the sons of the previous sultan, Muley Al – Shaykh, and Muley Zaydan, and while it was difficult for Morrocans as a whole, it was particularly difficult for the Jews, especially in Fez.  A contemporary account from a Jewish resident of Fez states:

For three and a half years [1603 – 1606], we have been victims of starvation and many other calamities… Some 800 souls have starved to death in Fez… More than 600 Jews have apostatized [nebach]…  The roads are no longer safe, lines of communication have been cut off, whoever remains in the city starves, and whoever leaves it becomes a victim of the knife… Yisrael has reached the most extreme possible state of poverty.

Even though Shmuel did not reside in Fez at this time, it is clear that the situation in Morocco was dire.  He had to escape, and therefore attempted to settle in Spain with his family as tolerated Jews.  Although it would seem that Shmuel would be heading straight into the arms of the Inquisition, he was confident that the information he would be able to provide to the Spanish crown would give him protected status.

Shmuel revealed that the Ottoman Empire was interested in expanding its control of North Africa, and if left unchecked, Spain could find itself a neighbor of its old enemy from across the Strait of Gibraltar.  Shmuel’s plan was for the Spanish to capture the town of Larache, a strategic port southwest of Tangier, but his plan was not taken seriously.  He was suspected of being a double agent, and the Duke of Medina Sidonia advised the king saying “his business is all trickery.”8Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean, p. 79. The king did reimburse the Pallaches for their travels9See Man of Three Worlds, p. 5. but they were told to leave.

They did not comply with this order, however, and several months later, they again tried to gain employment with King Philip by sending a letter detailing the political conditions in Morocco.  They were still not taken seriously by the monarchy, and they departed from Spain, only to return the following year.  This time they tried another tactic: Baptism.  A letter was sent to the King expressing a wish for permission for the Pallache clan to settle in Spain, and in return, Yoseph offered to convert himself and his three sons.10See Man of Three Worlds, p. 10.

Did the Palaches actually intend to convert to Christianity? It seems unlikely that Shmuel would have considered it seriously.  We have testimony from his crew in later voyages that he was careful to eat kosher food, and records after his death show that he possessed sifrei Torah, which he presumably took along when he was at sea.  Most likely it was another one of Shmuel’s plans to gain entry into Spain.  This effort was for naught, as the Inquisition began an investigation into Shmuel’s activities, and Shmuel quickly escaped into neighboring France.

Interlude in Amsterdam

Having finally realized that Spain was not a viable option for parnassah, Shmuel decided to make his way to the Netherlands, where a community of Portuguese exiles had recently taken up residence.  For many years, the Netherlands had been part of the holdings of the Spanish crown, until Prince William of Orange led a rebellion against Spain.  So long as the Netherlands were under Spanish dominion, Jews were barred from settling there.  When the Spanish were driven out, the Dutch leadership began to allow Jews in.

The first Jews to arrive in Amsterdam were led by a man named Yaakov Tirado in 1603, and here is where things get difficult for the discerning historian.11See for example Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean, and A History of Jews in North Africa.  Many contemporary historians list Shmuel Palache as arriving in Amsterdam with this group.  They base this on the testimony of Daniel Levy de Barrios, a historian who lived in Amsterdam half a century after Shmuel’s passing.12The Jewish Encyclopedia has some interesting information on him. In 1674, he became a follower of the Sabbatean movement, and, convinced Mashiach would arrive that Pesach, he had a manic episode where he refused to eat for four days until his health reached a life threatening situation. He refused to heed anyone’s advice except for the famous Rabbi Yaakov Sasportas (who had helped De Barrios with previous publications), who succeeded in convincing De Barrios to break his fast. The difficulty with this account is that Shabbetai Tzvi had converted to Islam eight years prior, and during his years posing as a savior, the Jews of Amsterdam were swept up in a wave of Messianic fervor, as evidenced in the testimony of R’ Yaakov Sasportas in his sefer – Tzitzas Noveil Tzvi. Why, then, hadn’t De Barrios been affected by the wave of messianic activity in 1666? Even if he wasn’t residing in Amsterdam at that point, news of Shabbetai Tzvi had spread through the entire Europe, so why had he not become a follower then? And if he did join this movement and then left it when news of Shabbetai Tzvi’s conversion reached him, what caused him to relapse? He published many books in Spanish, among them Historia Universal Judayca, which includes wild legends about Shmuel Palache, as well as gross exaggerations and alteration of facts.  Shmuel is presented as a pirate thirsty for revenge on the Spaniards, sailing around in a pirate ship with the emblem of a phoenix on the bowsprit, to represent the Jew’s ability to rise up from the flames of the auto-da-fe and to take revenge on the inquisition.  Modern historians have accepted his views as fact.

In truth, we have just shown that Shmuel tried for several years to obtain residence in Spain and even offered his services to King Philip, which would be truly perplexing if he were driven by a hatred of Spain.  De Barrios claims that Shmuel was elected president of the kehillah, another bit of information that historians have accepted as fact,13Jewish Pirates of the Carribean p. 36 “Shmuel now addressed as rabbi was elected president.” but Shmuel was almost never home in Amsterdam and there is a good chance that he was never a prominent member of the kehillah.  Is it possible that he was president? Certainly, but as De Barios is the only source for this information, we can’t rely on it.

De Barrios also claims that the Jews of Amsterdam assembled on Yom Kippur of 1603 in Shmuel Palache’s house for davening.  Neighbors who saw the group of Portuguese-speaking foreigners congregating, grew suspicious and called the police who arrested everyone on the charge that they were spies.  Fortunately, Shmuel Palache, who knew Latin, was able to convince the police that not only was this not a group spies, but they were actually Jews who were persecuted by the Inquisition even more than the Protestant Dutch.  Satisfied by his answers, the police released the Portuguese anusim, who resumed davening.

The problem with this story is that its protagonist, as recorded by De Barrios, had just been turned back from Spain towards Morocco after his request to journey to Lisbon was denied.  Is it possible that he then abandoned the Sultan of Morocco and went to Amsterdam for unknown reasons? That might be, given Shmuel’s frequent double dealings, but this account has not been corroborated by any official state correspondence.14In contrast, Shmuel’s adventures in Spain are documented in Spanish archives. See A Man of Three Worlds, pages 4, 5 ,6, and 7.

The first recorded evidence of Shmuel’s settlement in Amsterdam is in 1608.15In contrast, Shmuel’s adventures in Spain are documented in Spanish archives. See A Man of Three Worlds, page 54.  Shmuel and Yoseph applied for Dutch passports, but they were withdrawn, and the brothers were forced to return to Morocco.  Shmuel managed to get himself appointed by Sultan Muley Zidan as a Morrocan envoy to Holland, and the following year, he transferred his family from Tetouan, Morocco to Amsterdam.

In 1609, his name appeared on a trade treaty between Holland and Morocco, and the States General, the governing body of Holland, awarded Palache a gold chain, gold medal, and 600 florins.  He also made several journeys between the two countries as an envoy of Muley Zidan, and he once more began to involve himself in piracy.

Shmuel the Pirate

In 1610, Shmuel proposed a daring idea: If the Dutch could provide a fleet of eight ships and 2,000 musketeers, Shmuel would launch a raiding expedition on the Spanish coast, and a quarter of the spoils would be given to the sultan, however the plan never materialized, and so in July of that year, Shmuel again requested Dutch ships and arms.  This time his request was granted, both by the States General and Sultan Zidan.

Jorge de Henin, a Spanish agent in Morocco, reported what happened next:

During these days there arrived at the port of Safi the alcayde Hamete Biscaino, whom Muley Zidan had sent to Holland as his ambassador, and he came with three warships… There came in his company Martin Raisberguen as ambassador of the States and admiral of the ships.  And also with them was Samuel Palache who handled the correspondence between Muley Zidan and the States.  They brought 1,000 lances and 1,000 sabers, and 600 guns… and after Martin de Raisberguen had handed over his cargo, Muley Zidan ordered him to go with his warships to the coast of Spain to make a fine capture of Spanish ships, and then he sent him off, and in his company went Samuel Palache…

Martin de Raisberguen arrived at the port of Safi with Muley Zidan’s ships, and they brought with them two French ships – a prize of small importance.  And they went from Safi to Mogador to tar the ships, but the galleons of Spain came and sank them, and only Martin de Raisberguen escaped, sailing to Santa Cruz, and from there to Holland.  (Presumably Shmuel was on de Raisberguen’s ship.) Those from the ships who were lost were saved on land and came back to Morocco.  Muley Zidan made captives of the Frenchmen, and sent the Dutch to sale on a ship that he had there, and so they went back to their lands.

Thus, yet another failed adventure for Palache the Pirate …

Shmuel the Privateer

Shmuel’s next action occurred in 1613.  The States General of Holland granted Palache a warship and yacht, and gave him the ability to raise a crew of fighters.  On paper, Shmuel’s official mission was combat pirates operating off the coast of Morocco, but the real purpose of the cruise was to prepare for Dutch occupation of the port town La Mamora.  La Mamora had become a pirate haven over the years, and the Spanish who were settled a few miles down in Larache, were expressing interest in capturing it.  Both the Dutch and Morocco did not want this to happen, and Shmuel was sent to prepare the ground for a Dutch assault.  However, while the Dutch assumed that they were at liberty to annex La Mamora, Sultan Zidan didn’t see it quite that way.  La Mamora was on Morocon soil, and Zidan wanted the Dutch to fortify the town against the Spanish, but not to claim it as their own.  Shmuel, knowing Zidan’s misgivings over Dutch seizure of the town, convinced the States General anyways that they would be able to occupy the town when the pirates were driven out.

While this was going on, Shmuel arrived at Sultan Zidan’s palace for an audience.  There he was commanded to “harm the Spaniards and make war on them,” 16In contrast, Shmuel’s adventures in Spain are documented in Spanish archives. See A Man of Three Worlds, page 78. meaning Zidan was making Shmuel a privateer.  Armed with his verbal letter of marque, Shmuel prepared to meet with his Dutch counterparts, but something happened.  Muley Zidan was furious.  It could be he found out that Shmuel offered a lot more to the Dutch than he was authorized, or it could be that one of Shmuel’s competitors in Zidan’s court slandered him.  Whatever the case, Shmuel had to leave Morocco fast.  But what was he to do? Aha! He technically still had authorization from Zidan to attack Spanish shipping! And that is what Shmuel proceeded to do.  He embarked on a privateering expedition, capturing a Portugese caravel, a Spanish vessel, and then later a ship which belonged to an English owner.  The victorious Palache set sail for Holland, but a storm blew him off course, separating the ship he was on, from the other vessels under his command.  They wound up in Holland, while he landed in Plymouth, England , where he found out that he was a wanted man.  Attempting to flee, his ship ran aground near Dartmouth, whereupon he was arrested on charges of piracy.

Shmuel on Trial

Shmuel’s arrest was brought about by the Spanish ambassador to England, Diego Sarmiento de Acuna.  He had heard about Shmuel’s actions against Spanish vessels, and desired to see him tried as a pirate.  In a letter to the privy council, he wrote on October 24, 1614:17In contrast, Shmuel’s adventures in Spain are documented in Spanish archives. See A Man of Three Worlds, page 90, quoting from French archives. “a vassal of the king my lord who apostatized from the faith… to become a Jew,18This was a straight out lie. Palache had never been a Christian. then became a corsair as an ally to the Moors, and has now captured two ships from vassals of the king my lord.”

Shmuel reached out to his brother in Amsterdam and through his efforts, as well as the Dutch ambassador to England, Shmuel was released to house arrest in the home of the Lord Mayor of London after several months in jail.  In October of that year, Shmuel went to trial.  He was defended by the Dutch ambassador, who repeatedly pointed out that Shmuel was acting as an agent of the Sultan of Morocco, and as such, could not be tried like a common pirate.  He also played up de Acuna’s arrogance, and haughty manners to tarnish De Acuna’s image in the public eye, who anyways was not well liked. The case went back and forth for several months until March 20, 1615, when Palache was declared innocent, and permitted to leave England, much to De Acuna’s consternation.  He did succeed in imposing a hefty fine on Palache, but in June, Shmuel was homeward bound to Amsterdam.

End of Life

Shmuel arrived home a pauper.  Much of his money had been spent in the efforts incurring his release, and the plunder that he had captured as a privateer had long been sold to pay for the expense of supporting his former crew.  Like a cat with nine lives he began to plan his next steps, but in the winter of 1616 he took ill.  He passed away on February 5 / 16 Shvat.  Shmuel was 66.  Hundreds of Jews from Amsterdam accompanied his aron, and even many prominent non Jews took part in the funeral procession such as prince Maurice, monarch of Holland.  His matzeivah reads in part:

This is the matzeivah resting place of the wise man:
The pure, who did good with Elokim:
And with men, kavod moreinu Harav Shmuel Palagi…
After Shmuel’s Death19Shmuel’s kever is in the database of the Portugese Beis hachaim cemetery. For more info, visit

Shmuel’s family continued to live in Amsterdam after his passing.  Reina Palache sold Shmuel’s sifrei torah to the Neve Shalom shul, which was led by her brother in law R’ Yehudah Uziel.  Yoseph Palache also remained in Amsterdam, where he continued to work on behalf of Muley Zidan.  Several of Yoseph’s children also chose to remain in Amsterdam, although one of them – Moshe moved back to Morocco in 1618.  Another son Isaac unfortunately became a Protestant r’’l.  Over the ensuing generations the Palache family spread out further through Morocco, Italy and Egypt, and many were involved in the family “business” of political intrigue.  (To mention all of them by name and what they did would require a whole series of articles!) One branch of the family has remained in Amsterdam to the present day, and have been influential members of the kehillah.  In more recent times, Rabbi Isaac Juda Palache was a rav of the Portugese congregation in the early 1900’s, and another prominent member Yehuda Leon Palache was a university professor in Amsterdam, as well as chairman of the Talmud Torah kehilla.  He was murdered by the Nazis ym’’s in Auschwitz in 1944.  Although Shmuel Palache passed away hundreds of years ago, his influence was clearly not lost on his descendants, who left their mark not only in the places they lived in, but in world history as well.


Shmuel Palache was an extraordinary figure.  His name has gone down in the histories of Morocco, Spain, England, and Holland, yet he is virtually unknown in Jewish history, despite being the scion of prominent rabbanim – and a talmid chacham himself! My theory for this phenomenon is that Shmuel left no seforim to add to our rich mesorah, and not having taught any talmidim he simply was forgotten by frum yidden.  Another interesting fact to consider is that even though Shmuel was all over the place, almost all of his exploits ended in failure! Yet Shmuel never even considered giving up, neither despite his failures or because of old age.  Rather, he constantly began new endeavours which is possibly the biggest lesson we can take from his story: We should never let our failures cause us to give up, whatever they may be.  Hopefully with the help of this article, Shmuel’s memory will be restored to us.  And look out for the next article in the Jewish pirate series! We are going to be headed to the tropical Caribbean! Stay tuned…

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